Happy Scribe Logo


Proofread by 0 readers

And P. Everyone stays in Cardiff here. This is the indicator from Planet Money, and it is Friday, Stacey. It is Friday, which means that it is time for another installment of our indicator summer school. Yeah.


And for this lesson, Stacey, you actually did some traveling to a pretty fantastic place. You went to Greece.


Yes. This was a couple of years ago when we could travel. And it was it was a really wonderful trip.


I spent a lot of time in museums because this is what I like to do. And I was in this museum that was inside of a monastery and there were all these texts there. Most of them were Bible texts. It was like, you know, illuminated Bible texts and things like that.


But I saw this one scroll way kind of off in the corner. It was a little different from everything else. And I took a photo of it. Here it is. Wow, it's like bigger than a person, it's taller than a person and about half as wide it seems.


It's like seven feet long, it's just this long scroll and had this big gold seal on it. Very fancy. But guess what it was about what taxes. I was beside myself. I was so excited. In fact, according to this museum, this long seven foot scroll was a list of tax exemptions that was granted to a particular monastery from Alexia's, the first emperor of Byzantium in ten eighty eight. And this got me thinking because, like, I know the taxes are important, right?


Obviously, raising money is important for a government, for an emperor.


But are they this important? I mean, why are tax exemptions worthy of of this? I mean, the two things on manuscripts in this museum are like our immortal souls and taxes.


Maybe Byzantium had interest groups lobbying the emperor for tax breaks to you know, that is actually very possible, of course, right now, if everyone is talking about taxes, because the government has been spending so much money to try to help people and save the economy. And also at the same time, people are paying way less in taxes right now than they were last year because of unemployment and pay cuts.


Yeah, and so now everyone is talking about possible new taxes in the future, like a millionaire's tax or a higher inheritance tax, some way to get more revenue to the government when the government needs more money because a lot of the government's money does come from taxes.


Yes. And so all of this news is why I kept thinking about this scroll I saw in Greece, because that scroll made me realize that I have been thinking about taxes in entirely the wrong way. More on that after the break.


This message comes from NPR sponsor Microsoft. The world has changed and Microsoft teams is there to help us stay connected. Teams is the safe and secure way to chat, meet, call and collaborate. To learn more, visit Microsoft dotcom teams support also comes from fundrise fundrise makes it easy for anyone to invest in high quality real estate by building your portfolio with their more than one billion dollars in assets get started at fundrise dotcom indicator to have your first 90 days of advisory fees waived.


To learn more about the history of taxes, I called up William and Gutzman. You can call me Will. Will is the author of Money Changes Everything, a book about the history of money and taxes. The list of tax exemptions I was looking at was from the year ten eighty eight. But Will says for the Real Story, you have to go back to about 600 B.C..


The founding father of the Greek government, if you will, was a king named Solomon, and he is known for many things. But one of them is he created a central fund for financing the activities of the Athenian state, and he financed that through the collection of tax revenue.


Fun fact. If we could even start having more fun than we're already having. Someone wrote poetry. He was quite the Renaissance man. Of course, this is before the Renaissance, like the like a nascent man. I'll allow it, OK.


Oh, thank you. Anyway, when someone took the helm of Athens, Evans was just kind of a mess. It was pretty weak. It was not doing much exciting stuff and someone wanted to centralize things. He had this vision. He wanted to make a larger, more powerful government. And he did that partly through taxes.


At the same time, Solen started putting together the foundations of a democratic government, a representative government. And Will says that the orderly collection of taxes and the creation of this central fund were fundamental to that project. Taxes were kind of the glue to the whole thing.


The democratic process in which everybody has some say is something that made ancient Athenians more willing to give up some of their individual rights and brought them together.


And Wills says that collecting taxes in a way that's orderly was itself a technological innovation of sorts.


The way I think about finance is that it's a set of tools. It's a technology to move value backwards and forwards through time.


And for a government, the organized collection of taxes makes it possible to plan and to grow because you can anticipate roughly how much money you have coming in and when, so you can make plans for the future. And in a democratic system, people kind of accept that they're going to hand over some of their money in taxes and they're going to give up a portion of their money and some of their independence to a government. These sacrifices give people a stake in the government and in its policies.


It also gives them a right to speak up.


In fact, Will thinks the desire to collect taxes on the part of the government was a lot of what motivated Athens to create a representative government in the first place.


Democracy is one way to legitimize in people's minds the taxation process.


So. One of the nice things about having a democratic process is you could say, look, everybody's had their say, we've agreed, and if you don't like it, you can vote your congresspeople out of office. But we all agree that we owe our fair share.


Whereas if you've got a despotic government that you feel is just squeezing you and not not acting in the people's best interests, you're going to have a lot of resistance to paying taxes.


Oh, it's a taxation. No taxation without representation. I think that's the shorter way of putting it.


Will says taxes were central to the social contract of a representative government. It is a central part of the government citizen relationship. And he says when governments abuse this power or mess up this dynamic, it can have very powerful consequences and it can even take them down.


Yeah, like in France when tax collection was stepped up during a famine. And it's part of the reason that the French Revolution got going.


It's kind of also interesting, by the way, what Will says about how in a democracy we all agree that we owe our fair share. We just don't agree.


Well, we just don't agree about what that fair share actually entails and how it should be spent.


That's a big part of the democratic process, right?


Yeah, but no matter what the system is, taxes are definitely emotional.


People have strong feelings about them, pro or con, higher or lower. And that strong feeling can cause revolutions. But there have been times when it has also caused quite a bit of innovation.


The first writing that we know of is cuneiform writing, which was writing on clay tablets. And, you know, it was fascinating when in the in the 19th century, scholars figured out how to read this writing, but then a lot of them got disappointed because instead of finding great, you know, works of poetry and literature, which there were some of almost all of these tablets were business transactions, and most of them appear to be business transactions that had to do with delivery of goods to the state.


So it was taxes, it was taxes and finance and accounting that really led to the emergence of a written language.


In other words, Will says, without taxes and basically the deep human need for an IOU, we might not have the written word like no Hamlett, no Oddisee, no Mrs. Dalloway, no bluest eye without taxes.


Yeah, but also like no James Patterson. So, you know, maybe still not the greatest thing in the world where this is fair tax is get it this idea.


What's mine and what's yours?


How much does the government have the right to take and what do we get for the money we give to the government?


In the case of representative government, if we're not happy with our tax situation or any other situation, we can vote people out of office.


Will says that helps the taxes go down a little smoother.


And to close out Cardiff, I feel like maybe we should have a poem from one of the fathers of this whole relationship between representative government and taxes, King Solomon. OK, some wicked men are rich, some good or poor. We will not change our virtue for their store virtues, a thing that none can take away. But money changes. Owners all the day spoken like a tax man.


Yep, yeah. This episode of the indicator originally aired in November twenty eighteen, it was produced by Doris Rampion and Jamila Huxtable. Paddy Hirsch is our editor and the indicator is a production of NPR. With civil unrest, the pandemic and the economic crisis, you want to know what's happening right when you wake up, and that's why there is up first, the news you need in about 10 minutes from NPR News.


Listen. Every day.